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Tale of lost Renoir unravels as judge mulls who owns it
By Ginger Levit

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The “Renoir Girl,” as she called herself, is no longer anonymous. Her name is Marcia “Martha” Fuqua – an Americanization perhaps of her mother’s French-sounding last name, Fouquet.

Fuqua is the woman from northern Virginia who turned up at The Potomack Co. Auction House in Alexandria in September 2012, shocking the art world as she presented her little Renoir landscape to consign for auction.

The Renoir, Paysage Bords de Seine or On the Shore of the Seine, depicts lush greenery and bushes in bloom along the edges of the Seine River outside of Paris. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), known for his sumptuous, beguiling portraits of women and children, both clothed and nude, also painted landscapes.

The painting itself is only 5 inches by 9 inches.

Fuqua claimed to have found the Renoir in 2009 at a flea market in West Virginia, where she bought it for $7. It was the largest object in a box of goodies. It must have been a large box to hold the painting with its ornate, heavy frame.

But that was her most recent story. Fuqua has also said she acquired the Renoir at an estate sale.

Now the FBI is on the case. The painting’s provenance remains incomplete with a 60-year ownership gap and many loose ends dangling as the search continues to establish correct ownership. This much is true; however, it is a Renoir.

The FBI is investigating claims by the Baltimore Museum of Art that Paysage Bords de Seine had been given on loan to the museum by donor Saidie May in 1937.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ordered all parties seeking to claim ownership of the painting to make their case in written pleadings by the end of April.

The timeline is as follows:

•June 1, 2012 – Fuqua, and perhaps a male companion, visits Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Va. and showed Paysage Bords de la Seine to Quinn’s art specialist.

She tells the expert, who remains anonymous, that she had bought it at an estate sale. That story concerns the expert because the painting would have been evaluated prior to being sold at an estate sale. Fuqua makes an appointment to meet with Quinn’s Auction Galleries’ owner Matthew Quinn; but she never shows, and Quinn is unable to contact her.

•July 27, 2012 – Fuqua brings the Renoir to The Potomack Co., an auctioneer, claiming she bought it at a flea market. Potomack’s fine art specialist Anne Norton Craner confirms that it was a known, 19th century Renoir painting.

Potomack contacts the Art Loss Register – a service that records and follows missing and stolen works of art – confirming that the painting had never been reported stolen or missing. Potomack consults the FBI’s art theft website to confirm that it was not listed as stolen by the FBI.

•Sept. 11, 2012 – Fuqua’s story of finding the once-lost Renoir at a West Virginia flea market reaches many media outlets in advance of a planned Sept. 29 auction.

Experts think Renoir painted Paysage near the Restaurant Fournaise, a restaurant made famous in Renoir’s iconic Luncheon of the Boating Party, which has a similar feathery-stroke background. Some believe Renoir gave the small painting to Alphonse Fournaise, who owned the restaurant. The painting has an estimated value of $75,000 to $100,000.

•Sept. 26, 2012 – Potomack owner Elizabeth Wainstein pulls the Renoir from its auction listing after the Baltimore Museum of Art questions the painting’s ownership following the publication of a story in The Washington Post. Wainstein also contacts the FBI to investigate.

The Washington Post reports a donor loaned the Renoir to the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1937. The painting had a loan registration number that matched a file describing a small landscape that had been stolen from the museum on Nov. 17, 1951, although there is no known police report.

According to the Associated Press, records show an insurer, the Fireman’s Fund, paid a $2,500 claim on the theft. The insurer now claims it is the rightful owner, based on payment of that claim.

Fast forward to recent weeks, Fuqua’s identity is revealed through federal court documents. The FBI seized the Renoir and is holding it until proper ownership is determined.

Why Paysage Bords de la Seine is not listed as stolen on the FBI’s Art Loss Register is also a mystery.

Paris’ prestigious Bernheim-Jeune gallery, the world’s leading Renoir experts, confirmed the unsigned piece as truly a Renoir landscape. Authenticated as a Renoir, it is worthy of being included in Renoir’s catalogue raisonnée. However, 62 years of its whereabouts remain missing.

The painting was bought in Paris in 1926 by Baltimore lawyer Herbert May from the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. Via the May family, Paysage made its way to Baltimore. It is not clear, however, whether May or his wife, Saidie, gave the oil painting to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Mays divorced and Saidie acquired much of what had been their joint collection. The painting is believed to have been at the Baltimore Museum of Art from 1937 to 1951.

Fuqua claims she knows little about fine art. This is ironic because her mother, Marcia Fouquet, ran an art studio painting reproductions of the Masters for decades. Fouquet, 84, has two degrees in art, a fine arts degree from Goucher College and a graduate degree from the Maryland Institute of Art. Fuqua is believed to have helped in her mother’s studio.

Fuqua is fighting to keep the painting, hoping the FBI will let her retain ownership. She is claiming a legal designation as an “innocent owner.”

“Because I am not an art historian, collector, appraiser or dealer, I lacked the expertise to identify the Renoir Painting’s authenticity, origins or previous ownership history,” Fuqua wrote.

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